Gadget Pain: The New Frontier

The seemingly ubiquitous technology-laden gadgets that have made managing our lives and leisure time so easy are also to blame for a number of ailments that now sport quaint nicknames, such as “text neck,” “computer vision syndrome,” “Blackberry thumb,” “iPad elbow, “iPod ear” and “Facebook chin.”

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 3,200 injuries associated with computers and cell phones between 2007 and 2011 at 100 hospitals around the country contracted to report such data, says CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis.

The data, sent to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, allowed statisticians “to make estimates on emergency room treated injuries based on product type.”

The reported ailments were ones that generally fit in the category of repetitive motion injuries, Davis says, including tendinitis, bursitis, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel, cubital tunnel or overuse syndrome. The cases “dominantly involved” computers, cell phones and video games.

There are also an increased number of cosmetic surgical procedures being done, particularly chin implants, apparently because more people are video chatting on Skype and posting photos of themselves to online dating services like and social networking sites like Facebook.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports a 71 percent increase in chin implants over a year ago, outpacing the growth of Botox, liposuction and breast augmentation.

“People have cameras everywhere,” Dr. Darrick Antell, a New York plastic surgeon and professor of surgery at Columbia University, told MSNBC. “You can be at a wedding buffet table and a moment later see a picture of your double chin on Facebook. … Having a strong chin is not something you can gain via diet or exercise. You’re either born with it or you see a surgeon to improve it.”

Aches and pains
Local health care professionals do not keep statistics on injuries related to electronic devices, though anecdotally they’re seeing plenty of them.

Charles Casey, a physical therapist with Lovelace Health System, says he’s treating people with repetitive use issues including poor posture, imbalance with muscles and “lots of generalized aches, pains and some arthritis.”

The biggest group of them are people who spend 60 percent to 80 percent of their workday at a computer station and they’ve been doing it for multiple years. “They’re starting to have problems with posture because they’re not sitting properly or they don’t fit their work station very well. They tend to have muscle tension in the upper back and neck and their shoulders slouch forward.”

Headaches are very common among this group, Casey says, and he attributes much of it to straining to see monitors that are “too small, too close, too bright, too low or too high,” and low resolution text fonts.
Some neck pain and headaches, he says, stem from computer users who put the monitor off to the side, which causes them to turn their head while typing.

Thumbs and ears
People are also coming to Casey for pain and nerve problems in the hands, thumbs and arms, particularly people who text message extensively or use their cell phones and other small screen devices for gaming, he says. “Younger people recover faster, but as they get older I think there’s a potential for a new wave of repetitive use problems in the hands and thumbs.”

In fact, young people already have a technology-related health problem. Personal music listening devices, such as the iPod and similar MP3 players, are responsible for a 30 percent increase among teens with permanent hearing loss over the past decade, says audiologist Carol Clifford with Albuquerque Hearing Associates.

“It’s a huge deal and it’s overwhelmingly because of noise exposure from protracted listening to music through ear buds at levels that exceed OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards for factory noise.” The fix is easy, she says. “Turn down the volume,” or order a custom fit ear piece that provides better fidelity and blocks outside noise so music can be heard clearly at lower levels. These ear pieces cost about $75 and most audiologists can provide them.

Eye strain
Albuquerque ophthalmologist and eye surgeon Dr. Rob Melendez of Eye Associates of New Mexico estimates that he has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in the past three years among people who have eye problems related to their use of personal electronic devices. Chief among the complaints is “dry eye,” with symptoms that include a feeling of tired or heavy eyes, a burning or stinging sensation, and blurred vision, particularly in contact lens wearers.

Simply put, Melendez says, people who do prolonged and close-up work on computer screens “tend not to blink as much,” necessary to coat the eyes with a fresh coat of tears.

Also resulting from staring too long into various screens is an imbalance in the eye muscles, a condition called convergence sufficiency.

“Normally, both eyes converge or come together to focus on one object, such as when you’re reading or playing a game,” Melendez says. When eyes are strained, one of them can drift out, “so the brain sees two different images and this can cause a headache or make someone feel tired.”

He suggests limiting time spent working at a computer or other close-up electronic device, using an anti-glare screen where practical, adjusting the brightness and contrast of monitors, increasing the font size of text and using lubricating eye drops when needed.

Spinal issues
Albuquerque chiropractor Larry Marrich offers this mental image, borrowed from the March/April Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain LIFE magazine: Think of your head as a 15-pound bowling ball balanced atop a thin column, in this case the spinal column, which is supported by the muscles in the neck, shoulders and back. When that bowling ball is centered, the supporting column is relaxed and unstressed; but if the ball shifts forward, stresses are added up and down the column.

For every inch forward a person’s head leans over the center line of gravity, it adds 10 extra pounds of pressure to the supporting column, Marrich explains. So if a person is sitting at a desktop computer and is leaning forward by three inches, that translates to 30 extra pounds of pressure on the neck, shoulders and back. Done repeatedly and over many years, “it leads to permanent loss of normal cervical curvature,” which can result in fibromyalgia, a type of generalized body pain, as well as chronic headaches, tendonitis and other arm and hand pain. An even more acute head-forward angle is commonly assumed by people typing on laptop computers or text messaging on cell phones.

Health problems resulting from poor posture while using personal electronic devices have increased dramatically in the past 10 years. “It’s like an epidemic,” Marrich says, estimating that 60 percent of his patients see him because of this. And there are many more to come, he predicts. “When young people who do a lot of text messaging now get older, they will certainly have problems.”

Gadget Pain
COURTESY OF LOVELACE HEALTH SYSTEM Charles Casey, right, a physical therapist at Lovelace Rehabilitation Hospital, guides client Aaron Craig through exercises on an upper extremity strengthening machine.


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